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People Behind the Pots: Caroline Cheung on her new book, Dolia

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Published Date

April 23, 2024

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Available for order now, Prof. Caroline Cheung's debut monograph, Dolia: The Containers That Made Rome an Empire of Wine, is the story of the Roman Empire’s enormous wine industry, told through the remarkable ceramic storage and shipping containers that made it possible. We sat down with Prof. Cheung to ask her about the book, the value of material culture, and how human history might just be the story of containers.

First off, of course, congratulations you on your new book, Dolia, which is beautiful, beautifully written, and officially out today! So, to begin at the beginning, what are dolia and why are they special—can we start there?

Sure! Basically, dolia were the largest type of pottery in the ancient world. They were difficult to make, incredibly expensive, but very useful for wine fermentation and storage. Which is why they're so large, they're meant to be buried in the ground to stabilize the temperature during fermenting. But they're so large that no dolium is identical to another one, because they're all handmade, which would take months. Because archaeologists find them everywhere, we think of ancient pottery as throwaway, you know, cheap objects. But these were very expensive! According to Diocletian's price edicts, about 1000 denarii, which would have been about the average unskilled laborer’s 40 days' worth of their wages. So serious investments. 

This doesn’t sound like something you can just throw on a potter’s wheel.

No, it isn’t. And that's interesting, too, because this type of pottery production is so specialized. I mean, Plato in his discussion of governance even says, you wouldn't have a novice potter try to make a pithos—and a dolium’s even bigger! So it takes a lot of skill to make one. There are only a few people who still make pots that size today.

How big are we talking? Can you stand up in one?

Oh, yes. The exact size varies, though. Most of them are 500–800 liters, some are smaller. But then you have some very large ones that are 1000 liters, some that are even over 3000. So that's like 4000 bottles of wine in a single pot, which is a sign that, at this point in Roman history, there's much more wine that's being made. And I argue in the book that the emergence of this type of vessel comes out and drives the huge wine industry you see across the Roman Empire. 

And that has major implications for Roman culture? Or the Roman economy?

Both, absolutely. The average Roman drank about a bottle of wine a day, meaning there were huge economic opportunities for people investing in the production of these vessels. And then for the winesellers, they have the capacity to store a lot of wine, maybe to age it, maybe to hold on to the wine until prices were more profitable. So it opens up speculation and new economic endeavors. But it also plays into status, too. I think being able to have something like this shows that you are able to produce a lot of wine, store a lot of wine. There's even some really interesting examples of villas where spaces with dolia were actually decorated, like with mosaics. So it seems they were actually making a spectacle of production and storage and celebrating these pots. 

So, both a technological innovation and a kind of economic destabilizer—I love that! But if dolia were so useful, what happened to them? 

Well, everyone switched to barrels eventually. In the book, I hypothesize that dolia are really a very, very specialized storage system in the ancient world. And in some ways, it’s very ineffective. You actually have to pour from container to container, ladle things out, siphon things out or pump things out. And so that's what makes me think of the people behind it. Because some poor person has to make sure all 2000 liters of wine in that dolium is put into amphorae! 

And is that how you got interested in this topic? The people behind the pots?

Right, I’ve been working on this for ten years now. When I first started looking at dolia in Pompeii, I was interested in food storage more broadly, but I became interested in dolia specifically because I think, as an object, it offers a lens through which to study different aspects of the ancient world together. Again, we think about pottery as being cheap, thrown away when they're broken, but people were using metal to fix these pots, which was very astounding for me. So, yes—agriculture, wine production, craft production, economy, social history, thinking about the people behind them. Also thinking about object biographies: how are these things made, used, and repaired? That’s what got me hooked.

Then perhaps we should end there, which is about where your book ends, with a beautiful meditation on an Ursula K. LeGuin story where she proposes reframing history as beginning with the container. Isn’t that about what you’re saying?

When I read that short story, I thought, it's literally advocating for something that I'm doing! I mean, we have containers all around us. I’m drinking water out of this container. We bring lunch or leftovers in containers. When you go to the store we use bags, we use boxes. Containers shape the kinds of actions we can do, and the storage of food and distribution of food are so important for society. So I'm really interested in thinking about the role of containers, and how by focusing on these containers, you can really think about the texture of the material record and the people you will generally not learn about. We only have what we have from the ancient world, and—this is what I love about studying classics—you have to slow down, and really think, there are people behind everything that we still have today, and it's important to look closely to understand what they've done.